A Yonkers Mosque Is Blocked by Land-Use Bigotry
Illustration by Matt Hyunh
In 2015, the Islamic Community Center of Mid-Westchester (ICCMW) purchased a sagging, dilapidated hundred-year-old home in the tony Colonial Heights neighborhood of Yonkers, just north of Manhattan. The plan was to open a mosque and community center for the long-established Muslim population nearby, who otherwise had to travel outside the city to worship. The effort had been a long time coming; it had taken the group months to find a suitable location for the growing congregation. Eventually they happened upon 20 Grandview Boulevard, but the paint was peeling, shingles had come off, and mold had colonized the structure. It was in such bad condition that the bank, uncertain the ICCMW could pull off the renovation, denied them a loan. Still determined, the group instead scraped together the entire $750,000 purchase price from congregants.
They were hopeful things would move quickly once the deal closed; the redevelopment plan, which would make the building habitable again, was straightforward enough. Initial consultations with a land use attorney didn't turn up any glaring issues. The property's zoning already permitted a house of worship — an Episcopal church stands across the street. And though the place needed work, it seemed like the building could be returned to its former beauty. The neighboring church even agreed to share its parking lot so that congregants could attend Friday prayers without blocking up the street.
But just as they were about to begin the renovations, it turned out that the Colonial Heights Association of Taxpayers, a local group that claims to represent neighborhood residents, had applied to have the property designated as a historical landmark. If the designation was approved, ICCMW would have to seek permission from the city to make virtually any changes to the building's exterior, driving up costs and possibly preventing necessary changes. The mere filing of CHAT's application had essentially halted the group's progress: It triggered an immediate moratorium while the board looked into the request. The association had done this without so much as a phone call to the property's owners, who only discovered the maneuver when a reporter called. ICCMW decided to sue.
The federal case, still in its early stages, accuses members of the Yonkers city council and other city officials of violating ICCMW's First Amendment rights and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which protects religious institutions from discrimination in situations much like this one. The city is challenging ICCMW's standing to sue, arguing that they haven't yet been harmed because none of their planned renovations have been curtailed.
"No one cared about the property," says Omar Mohammedi, an attorney representing ICCMW in the suit. "And the minute showed their intention that they wanted to build a mosque, there was resistance."
The sorts of tactics apparently on display in Yonkers seem in keeping with the tenor of the times, after a presidential campaign that couched Islamophobia in terms of security. It's a kind of genteel bigotry: not open, overt discrimination, like the shouts about Shariah that dominated the debate in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, or the alleged harassment and physical intimidation of "ragheads" in Gillette, Wyoming. Rather, it's legal hazing and stall tactics, framed in innocuous terms.
These kinds of tricks are not new — ambitions for the so-called "ground zero mosque" were hobbled in a similar manner — but they are enjoying a surge in popularity. According to a DOJ report released this year, the department investigated seventeen alleged incidents of discrimination through land use laws, up from just seven in the decade before, most involving the abuse of zoning laws. In Bensalem Township, Pennsylvania, for example, a town board held six zoning hearings on a proposed mosque before rejecting it; the DOJ charged that the scrutiny far exceeded that applied to other groups, and amounted to discrimination. The planning commission in Pittsfield Township, Michigan, also tried to zone an Islamic school out of existence. The resulting suit ended just last month, in a $1.7 million settlement against the town.
Landmarking challenges, however, seem to be a novel riff on an old theme. (Discussing the Yonkers case, hate site barenakedislam hailed the tactic as a new vanguard with a post titled "NEW WAY to discourage Muslims from putting a mosque in your neighborhood.")
"It gets into a vicious cycle where those Muslims who are trying to build a place of worship have to constantly go before the zoning board," Afaf Nasher, director of the New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, says of such legal maneuvers. "It's a depletion of resources, it's a depletion of will, at times, and it just goes back and forth, back and forth, for years."
In Yonkers, the landmark board and city council have held a series of emotional and contentious public meetings. At a meeting on May 24, mosque opponents mostly stuck to their talking points. But one member of the congregation decried what was really going on, in his view: His community was turning against him.
"My son is standing back there with a baseball uniform on," he said, pointing, his voice quavering. "And damned if Osama bin Laden is going to make him carry his burden. Because he's an American, a proud American. And we didn't have anything to do with that. But for some reason, this community is trying to impose that guilt upon us. You can vote, work, pay taxes in this community, but no, you can't pray."
It was at that meeting, more than a year after ICCMW bought the property, that the city council approved landmark status — along party lines, with Republican members voting in favor and Democrats opposed.
For Christopher Johnson, a Yonkers councilmember from the city's west side, the debate over the mosque called up ugly memories. In 1985, a federal judge determined that Yonkers had deliberately and systematically segregated its public schools for decades, partly by cramming all the city's public housing into a one-mile stretch on the west side. The "deseg case," as it came to be known, stretched for nearly three decades, as the city appealed and dragged its feet on the remedies ordered by the courts.
"If we look back at the deseg case, there were a number of people on the east side of the city who didn't want people of color and people of low income, I guess, in their neighborhoods," Johnson says. "And I think that you could translate that into the same thing today, except interchange race with religion or background." (Interestingly, CHAT was active back then as well: A 1992 New York Times story quoted Thomas Dowd, identified as part of the group. He told the reporter he opposed the desegregation order, which would have largely affected the city's more affluent east side, of which Colonial Heights is a part.)
Messages left with CHAT went unreturned, and the mayor's office in Yonkers declined an interview request. Instead it issued a statement reading, in part, "Yonkers has a vibrant Muslim community that is an important and welcome part of our diversity. This congregation is welcome to open a mosque and the City stands ready to help them. ...Far from discriminating, the city is only asking them to adhere to the same rules that apply to everyone else."
There is, however, little to suggest that land-use rules have been applied as rigorously to "everyone else": Mohammedi maintains that ICCMW has been singled out. For a hundred years, he says, this property "was never designated, other houses in the same category, same architecture, same everything, were never designated...it's an intent to burden the client."
And so far, it's working.
"The fact that they are not using it is costing them now. The fact that they are dealing with this is costing them," Mohammedi said. "They cannot raise funds. They cannot do anything at this point."
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